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How Neighborhoods Kill
There had never been a rally quite like this one in front of Los Angeles City Hall or, for that matter, at any city hall in the United States. On December 10, 2013, nearly two hundred people assembled, displaying photos of loved ones whose lives were cut short by sickness and holding signs with the words, "Where you live should not determine how long you live." They shared stories of their relative's early deaths, a few fighting tears.
Yvette Fuentes, who has lived in poverty-ridden South Central Los Angeles all her life, held a photo of her mother, who died at age fifty-seven, a few years after she was diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes. Every year on her mother's birthday, Yvette takes the day off to visit her mother's grave and to go on outings — a trip to the mall, seeing a movie — that they would have done together had her mother not died prematurely. Fuentes' father had also died prematurely, of lung cancer at age fifty-seven.
Sabrina Coffey-Smith, who lives in the same area as Fuentes, held a sign with a photo of her brother, who suffered a fatal heart attack at fifty-three. He'd left her a voice message shortly before he died, saying, "This is your big bro. I really need to talk to you so call me back. I love you, so call me back." Coffey-Smith didn't get the message until after he died.
Another protester, Liliana Reyes, who lives in another low-income LA community, held a photo of her twin sister, a nonsmoker who died at twenty-four from lung cancer. Reyes's sister remained undiagnosed and untreated for several months after the first symptoms appeared — heavy coughing and back pain — because she was uninsured. Reyes still feels adrift after that loss nine years earlier.
Stories like these abound in poorer areas. Although tragically early deaths occur in all types of neighborhoods, they're far more prevalent in those with high poverty rates and a dearth of the basic resources that support health, like parks, good schools, and grocery stores.
In fact, the 2013 rally was prompted by a first-of-its kind report from Los Angeles's Public Health Department, which revealed a startling twelve-year difference in life expectancy between the wealthier, verdant areas on the city's west side and its far poorer neighborhoods in the inner parts of the vast city.
"There's nothing in the water in Los Angeles that creates that. This is a problem of our own making," Dave Regan, a Service Employees International Union leader, told the crowd. "A walk from the west side to Central LA is really a journey from the First World to the Third World."
Many of the workers Regan's union represents, who labor as hospital technicians and in-home caregivers, among other health care occupations, live in South LA. They showed up to pressure the region's nonprofit hospitals to set aside more money to benefit low-income communities. These nonprofit hospitals are required to do so given their generous tax breaks, but many do not, and there's little enforcement of the requirement. The protesters wanted to see more of that money — tens of millions of dollars annually — actually collected and then spent on neighborhood amenities in their home turf that would make their lives healthier and easier, the same kind of amenities that wealthier areas take for granted.
Consider Pacific Palisades, an affluent enclave on the western edge of Los Angeles in zip code 90272. There, the afternoon sun bathes spacious ocean-facing homes in a golden glow, while beachgoers enjoy the sand and surf of the community's beaches and bikers and hikers travel to the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. Shops, restaurants, and cafes keep the sidewalks busy in its attractive downtown. Most businesses are locally owned, and residents let fast-food restaurants know they're not welcome, beating back an attempt years ago by one burger chain to open one; no fast-food outlet has tried since then. Although it's actually part of the City of Los Angeles, the neighborhood picks an honorary mayor to represent its interests at City Hall. Kevin Nealon, a longtime cast member of the TV show Saturday Night Live, currently holds the honorary position; a few of his famous predecessors include Sugar Ray Leonard, Anthony Hopkins, and Chevy Chase.
Pacific Palisades is called the Mayberry of Los Angeles for its small-town, friendly atmosphere, and people living here not only enjoy the good life, they get to do so for longer. Average life expectancy in the Palisades is eighty-five years. It's the highest in Los Angeles, a distinction shared with adjacent Brentwood and Bel Air.
If you travel inland over the LA basin, though, life expectancy steadily declines as you cross into middle-class neighborhoods and then into progressively poorer ones. By the time you reach zip code 90059 in South Los Angeles, where the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 Los Angeles riots both ignited, life expectancy plunges twelve years to seventy-three, the same as someone born in Samoa.
South LA is no Mayberry, and it has no celebrity honorary mayor. For those who can't afford to live elsewhere or who stay because of their connections to the community, it's a challenging hometown. It has no real downtown, only strip malls along major thoroughfares replete with check cashing outlets, liquor stores, taquerias, and an occasional BBQ joint. In 2010, only a handful of grocery stores served a vast area, and fast-food outlets operated on countless corners, advertising bargain meals. (In South LA, 72 percent of restaurants are fast-food types, compared with 40 percent in wealthier West LA.) Anyone looking for alcohol doesn't have to travel far; nearly nine liquor stores per square mile operate in South LA, compared with two per square mile in West LA. There's only 1 acre of parkland for every 1,000 residents in South LA, versus 70 acres per 1,000 in West LA neighborhoods like Pacific Palisades and Brentwood.
The homes in South LA are typically small and in various states of upkeep, ranging from tidy houses with flower beds to those with peeling paint and unkempt yards storing recliners, car parts, and discarded appliances. Metal fences topped by spikes guard most homes, evidence of the pervasive fear of crime in the area. Residents commonly share stories of the robberies, break-ins, and muggings they or family members experienced; some refuse to venture out at night and do so only cautiously during the day. Young people describe how they have watched friends or neighbors shot or have taken bullets themselves as a target or while caught in crossfire. Even inside homes, distant nighttime gunfire may shatter the quiet.
The paucity of resources for healthful living and the strain of unpaid bills and debt combined with the trauma of living in a high-crime area translate into far higher disease rates for South LA residents — hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and depression, to name leading maladies — compared with their nearby neighbors in the verdant, peaceful enclaves of Bel Air or Pacific Palisades.
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This familiar scenario repeats itself in many cities nationwide, with those living in poorer sections lacking the basics for healthful living — even a sense of safety — and enduring shorter, sicker lives than wealthier neighbors just a few miles away. In one impoverished Baltimore neighborhood, life expectancy is sixty-five, on par with war-torn Yemen, whereas in the city's wealthy Roland Park enclave, life expectancy soars to eight-four. In the San Francisco Bay Area, residents of an affluent section of Walnut Creek live on average eighty-seven years, while 12 miles away in a tough neighborhood in West Oakland, residents face a life expectancy of seventy-one, about the same as someone in Bangladesh.
Urban dwellers in low-income areas, who are commonly Hispanic and black, aren't the only ones coming up short on the life span yardstick. A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that although the average US life expectancy continued its steady increase over the past century or so, to seventy-nine years at birth in 2014, the disparity between regions began widening in 1980, now reaching more than two decades. And it's poor rural whites in the Mississippi River Basin and in Appalachia, along with Native American populations in North Dakota and South Dakota, who face the shortest life spans — sixty-six years on average. Meanwhile, denizens of central Colorado's affluent ski country enjoy the nation's longest life span, averaging eighty-seven years. In a trend that stunned even experienced researchers, in the United States longevity rates for middle-aged whites are actually declining, a life span loss not shared with any other US racial group or any other rich nation.
* * *
Dr. Robert Ross knew firsthand the toll of living in the midst of neighborhood poverty, having grown up in a dangerous South Bronx housing project. His family, however, was one of the more fortunate ones, with his African American father and Puerto Rican mother both at home and his father working a steady job. In 1983, with his freshly minted medical degree, the Ivy League graduate arrived at his new job in a public clinic in Camden, New Jersey, full of optimism and ready to expand pediatric services in the impoverished neighborhood. But dismay soon set in as Ross realized how inadequately his medical training prepared him to cope with an onslaught of ill health so deeply intertwined with the sick neighborhoods, physically and psychically, in which his patients lived.
Camden, a small city in the shadow of Philadelphia's gleaming skyscrapers across the Delaware River, was, and still is, among the most violent cities in the United States. Once a thriving industrial town, some sixty thousand jobs were shed as a shipyard, a Campbell Soup factory, the RCA factory, and other businesses moved out in the 1960s and 1970s. Nearly one in five residents is unemployed, and the downtown strip is lined by abandoned, decaying storefronts.
Ross, it turns out, came just in time to watch a community unravel with the advent of crack cocaine. "Before 1984, poor people couldn't buy cocaine. But when some evil genius invented crack, the price point for cocaine went down to five dollars," Ross said. "So now you introduced this very cheap passport out of misery and hopelessness to these distressed communities, and the rest that followed was almost frighteningly predictable and logical. Women in my practice who were previously good and caring and able mothers began to neglect and abuse their kids," he said. "All of a sudden the number of calls I got in the middle of the night to attend deliveries of one-pound babies just blew through the roof. Those became crack babies."
The reality he faced in that clinic dashed his confidence in the established medical system. "It made me somewhat angered and bitter about my training as a physician and as a healer," he said. Ross felt helpless to save his patients, so susceptible to a drug that instantly arouses intense feelings of pleasure and euphoria, a temporary escape from a treadmill of struggle and depression.
"I had this sobering insight that something was just fundamentally wrong with how our medical system engages in the craft of healing," he said. "This whole issue of poverty and housing and hopelessness and unemployment, and the role that it plays in health and wellness, had been completely ignored in my medical training. And to a great extent, although things are a bit better, it continues to be ignored now."
* * *
A growing body of research backs up Ross's insights. Lack of clinical care actually plays only a small role in the wide differences in health and longevity between zip codes, although that's one of the toughest notions to budge because most people equate good health with visits to doctors' offices. If that were the case, though, why are many US children facing a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to rising rates of obesity and the diseases it brings on — diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and others — despite these children's access to doctors? No one is diminishing the role of medical care in improving the quality of life: Western medicine excels in emergency and acute care, and new drugs, treatments, and surgeries allow those with chronic conditions to live far longer, and more comfortably, than they would otherwise. But many of these chronic diseases still can shave years off individuals' lives, even with treatment. Nor is everyone diligent about following treatment plans, and some can't even afford it. The best strategy for a long life, of course, is avoiding these diseases altogether, and that's where public health measures shine.
Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually credit public health programs for twenty-five years of the more than thirty-year US life span increase in the twentieth century (the average life expectancy in 1900 was forty-seven). Public health regulations, for example, to ensure clean water and untainted food controlled the spread of infectious diseases, as did controls on disease vectors such as mosquitoes and rats. Restrictions on tobacco reduced disease rates linked to smoking, and public education campaigns on sanitation practices such as handwashing further reduced disease spread. Medical advances, including the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics, contributed to the rest of that longevity increase.
In another CDC study, researchers concluded that inadequate health care accounts for just 10 percent of premature mortality; the agency assigned another 20 percent to genetic factors, 20 percent to environmental factors, and 50 percent to lifestyle and behaviors.
It's this last statistic that gets controversial. Some argue that behavior and lifestyle choices are entirely an individual's responsibility and thus the health disparities are of people's own making. But most public health professionals, as well as major organizations such as the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization, argue just as strenuously that an individual's choices are constrained by what is accessible, feasible, and affordable. Some use the term behavioral justice to push for fairer assessments of the latitude individuals have to make healthy choices when dealing with a very limited menu. In one article, government researchers noted that unhealthy behaviors such sedentary lifestyles, poor eating habits, and drug and alcohol use, "which tend to be blamed on the individual, occur within the context of a social environment." The article then cites high poverty rates, inadequate housing, unemployment, poor education quality, and lack of social support as factors influencing behavioral choices.
Visit some of America's poorest neighborhoods and step inside the homes, and the menu of healthy lifestyle options becomes clearer. Money is so tight that kitchen shelves run bare by the end of the month. Even when the checks come in, the nearest grocery store is often miles away — an inconvenience for those with a car and an hours'-long chore for those without one. That makes $1.99 fast-food meals or a $10 pizza an easy option, especially when the kids are starved and you're just off work, exhausted and strapped for cash.
How about an evening stroll to exercise and relax away the tension of the day? In many areas, that's unthinkable, as you might be walking past a corner where just weeks ago someone shot another dead over a gang rivalry. Broken fragments of a car window litter the sidewalk, the unswept remains of a break-in, and a pack of dogs roams unattended. And you never know when someone might walk up and demand your money. Rarely are there nearby, affordable gyms and recreational facilities — let alone safe parks — to visit. Instead, many people just hunker down inside their houses, some even keeping out of the front rooms to avoid a possible stray bullet.
Even adequate sleep often doesn't come easy in these neighborhoods, in part due to the strain of financial worries, fear of crime, or simply the noise of random gunshots or cars squealing as young men race down roadways, practicing donuts, spins, and other automotive stunts late at night on deserted streets. Residents often mistrust one another and fewer neighborhood groups coalesce, while tensions between racial groups also hinder interactions. This lack of cohesiveness takes a separate toll, as seminal studies show that strong social support from neighbors and local institutions like churches plays a powerful role in fostering long, healthy lives.
As for the environment, commercial truck routes typically run through low-income neighborhoods, steering clear of more affluent areas (where they're often banned due to objections over the exhaust and noise) and exposing residents to fine particulates from diesel exhaust and other pollution, which increases the risk of asthma, cancer, and heart disease. Industrial plants or toxic waste sites sometimes operate nearby, because land is cheaper in these neighborhoods. Older housing stock becomes a haven for mold and mildew, triggering respiratory problems for some, and paint tainted with lead still covers many surfaces, exposing residents to the potent neurotoxin blamed for learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and memory impairment. Children and adults in poorer areas have a sixfold increase in blood lead levels compared with those living in high-income neighborhoods.
Excerpted from "Twenty Years of Life"
Copyright © 2018 Suzanne Bohan.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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